|Polish History- The Partitions of Poland
"The Empress of Russia has breakfasted, where shall she dine?"
Augustus III, thankfully the last of the Saxon kings, died in Dresden in 1763. The election of the new Polish king was a matter of serious discussion- between foreign monarchs Frederick and Catherine. When Prussia and Russia formed the alliance that decided the Seven Years War, the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been discussed, but it was agreed to perpetuate the de facto Russian protectorate. Although Catherine remained opposed to the partition project, it was becoming clear that Prussia would eventually demand a piece of the Polish pie. The partition of Poland was only a matter of time.
To help facilitate their plans for Poland, the Commonwealth's two worst enemies conspired to impose on it a leader of their choice. It was decided that, for appearances sake, a native Pole, ostensibly a "Piast", should be elected as the new king, but one who would be a subservient puppet of Russia and her ally. Although Augustus III's son was available to carry on the torpid tradition, Saxon control of Poland, even if only superficial, was neither needed nor wanted by the new powers in Eastern Europe. After a candidate was surreptitiously selected, Russia and Prussian signed an eight year treaty that guaranteed the preservation of the Polish Golden Freedoms, meaning, of course, that no meaningful reforms in the Commonwealth were allowed.
The Manchurian candidate seemed to have impeccable Polish credentials. Stanislaw Poniatowski (1732-1798) was a relative of the Czartoryski family, a former member of the Sejm whose extensive parliamentary experience gave an appreciation of how the system worked, brother of the future primate of the Catholic Church, and son of a high-level Leszcynski supporter. He was highly intelligent, brilliantly educated, hard-working, principled, and committed to improving the Commonwealth. His educational, political, and cultural leadership achieved more in Poland than any king in the preceding 150 years. Like Sobieski, Poniatowski was multilingual, speaking six languages fluently and had, at the expense of his wealthy father, conducted a grand tour of Europe in his early adulthood. He was greatly impressed with English constitutional politics and French culture, and worked to bring the best of both back to Poland. Yet Stanislaw was destined to be a tragic figure, an ardent but ineffective patriot, often blamed for the destruction of the Commonwealth. He was vain, often superficial, and had an unfortunate habit of losing his nerve under pressure, but Stanislaw loved his country and always believed his actions were in the interests of Poland. He remains one of the most misrepresented, or perhaps misunderstood, figures in Polish history.
The Polish king and the Russian empress were more than casual political associates. Through his influential Czartoryski uncles, Stanislaw secured a position in the Russian court in 1755. There, in the suite of British ambassador Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams, the charming future King met the twenty-six year old Sofia Augusta Friderika of Anhalt-Zerbst, Grand Duchess Catherine Alekseyevna, who is better known as Catherine the Great. Despite the Duchess's marital status, the two engaged in a torrid and high profile love affair. Poniatowski tutored the young Catherine in Western politics and philosophy, but their relationship was cut short when Czarina Elizabeth learned of the liaison and expelled Stanislaw in1758. Elizabeth was no prude and recognized that Catherine was not likely to be faithful to her inadequate husband; rather Poniatowski was expelled when he was suspected of being a Czartoryski spy and because he associated with the British who recently negated their Russian alliance by signing a treaty with Prussia.
Catherine's marriage to Grand Duke Peter was widely recognized as a sham. Peter was an immature, and possibly impotent, a dandy who seemed more interested in playing soldier than making love. When Peter III became czar upon the death of Elizabeth he initiated a series of unpopular policies that mainly benefited his native Holstein. While he was away the Lieb Guard who served as body guards for the czar revolted and declared Catherine Empress in July of 1762. Although Peter accepted his fate rather passively, requesting only a supply of alcohol and tobacco as compensation, he was murdered several days later. Catherine claimed no part in the scheme, although it is unlikely that the shrewd czarina was not involved. Not only were the offenders unpunished, many were promoted to high position in the aftermath of the czar's murder.
Catherine II, who like her name sake Catherine I succeeded her husband Peter, ruled as an "enlightened despot", an oxymoron if ever there was one, for over thirty-four years. Her intelligence may only have been exceeded by her libido as throughout her life she maintained an active and varied sex life. Unlike the antics of male monarchs like Augustus the Strong, her affairs were not viewed as a positive attribute and spawned vicious rumors about her activities. At the risk of being labeled a neigh-sayer, it is almost certainly untrue that Catherine had inappropriate relationships with horses, as is often claimed. It is true that her stable of lovers were forced to jockey for position to curry the favor of the czarina. But Catherine always distinguished between business and pleasure, and if anything used her sexuality to her advantage. Ultimately, Catherine succeeded where Peter the Great failed, turning back the Ottoman threat to gain access to the Black Sea while projecting the Russian frontiers into the heart of Europe.
Many assumed that Stanislaw Poniatowski was merely Catherine's lackey who was manipulated by the seductive charms of the czarina. In truth Stanislaw was more the victim of circumstances than of Catherine. The "election" of Poniatowski almost occurred in 1762, but Catherine wisely restrained her Czartoryski co-conspirators when she recognized that Augustus III had not long to live. At the time Catherine was insecure in her new position and did not wish to needlessly complicate foreign affairs. "The Family" was eager to place their representative on the throne of Poland to carry out comprehensive reforms designed to create an effective parliamentary government, which, of course, they would control. According to the Czartoryskis plan, the liberum veto would be abolished and replaced with majority voting, the dietines instructions to their deputies would be declared non-binding, and the Sejm would be granted the authority to appoint most offices and distribute land. Landless nobles, viewed by the magnates as rabble that disturbed government functionality, would lose their political rights, largely to decouple them from the powerful magnates that controlled their vote.
After Augustus III died on October 5, 1763, Catherine schemed with members of "The Family" to assure the correct outcome in the upcoming election. In a decision they soon regretted, the Czartoryskis asked the empress to send Russian troops to Warsaw to suppress opposition to Stanislaw's candidacy. "The Family" had grown contemptuous of their Polish political rivals, claimed they preferred the tyranny of Muscovy to the tyranny of equals. They soon got their wish.
The troops were accompanied by the new Russian ambassador, Prince Nicholas Repnin, who, in fact, wielded more power in Poland than any native Pole. At the opening session of the election Sejm, Russian troops were present in force. The aged marshal Malachowski, whose duty it was to open the session, attempted to suspend the authority of the diet since it was obviously corrupted by the presence of foreign troops. When the Russian troops, swords drawn, rushed the old man, Malachowski defiantly cried out, "Strike, I shall die free, and in the cause of liberty!" The bold declaration gave the Russians pause, but they soon escorted Malachowski from the voting chamber and supervised the election of a more malleable marshal.
With the help of the Czartoryski family's ample bribes and in the intimidating presence of Russian arms, Poniatowski was elected king in September 1764, taking the name of Stanislaw II Augustus. He unwisely alienated those who supported him for his Polish roots by appearing at his coronation in French-style knee-breeches and jacket instead of traditional Polish attire. Worse, he vainly refused to shave his long black curls and appear for the coronation with a cropped head, as was tradition.Polish sentiments further were enraged when Poniatowski appointed foreign advisors and seemed intent on bringing Western culture to the Commonwealth.
Although the new king embraced many democratic principles, he was hardly a man of the people, or even the lower nobility. After an earlier election campaign he was known to remark, "For several days at the seymik one had to talk nonsense to the rabble, express admiration for their ludicrous arguments, delight in their shallow concepts, and, worst of all, embrace their dirty, wretched persons". Since the royal treasury was bare and Poniatowski possessed no fortune, the new king was from the start financially dependant on the Russian Empress, who supplied him with a modest annual stipend of three thousand ducats. In fact, the once great Republic was so morally and financially bankrupt that the Russian czarina was forced to pay for the coronation of her puppet king.
After the election, Catherine quickly modified her understanding with the Family, allowing only minor reforms and insisting that Russia be granted the right to "guarantee" Polish freedoms and protect religious dissidents. The Czartoryski discovered that they were as powerless as any other Polish faction, and could do little but pray that Catherine did not change the bargain further. Behind the scenes the Russians coordinated their policies with Prussia, with whom they formed a covert "Northern System of Alliances" designed to combine Eastern European, Baltic, and, if possible, English powers in an anti-Bourbon-Hapsburg League.
Although the reforms Catherine allowed the Sejm to approve after the elections were minor, they proved helpful. The Poles opened a cadet school, called the School of Chivalry, which provided military training and secular education to impoverished szlatchta. One of the first students was a nineteen year old Lithuanian named Tadeusz Kosciuszko, "Kosciusko" in the commonly accepted English spelling, who figured prominently in the coming American and Polish revolutions. The Sejm cobbled together much needed economic reform, such as the establishment of a national tariff and a fiscal commission. Perhaps as a trial balloon, majority voting was made statutory in the local dietines, or seymiks, and concerning financial matters in the Sejm itself, paving the way for the elimination of the unanimity requirement altogether.
One of the more subtle, but significant, changes was that for the first time constitutions passed by the Convocational and Election Sejms were recognized as valid in their own right, no longer in need of a separate sanction from the king.
Embolden by the success of the minor legislation, Chancellor Zamoyski proposed to completely abolish the liberum veto, presented in the Sejm with a program of aggressive reform. The direct affront to Poland's political masters did not go unchallenged. Prussia and Russia immediately threatened war and demanded that the Sejm be dissolved. Minor reforms were allowed because foreign powers desired a serviceable Poland. Major reforms were blocked because the foreign powers desired a subservient Poland. The illusion of autonomy vanished.
By 1766 Catherine broke with the Czartoryskis. As "useful idiots" they were allowed to push through policies desirable to Russia, but after Poniatowski was installed the Family was of little further value to Catherine. Catherine continued to pose as the defender of dissidents, non-Catholics, partially as a political ploy to increase her popularity at home. Her religious faith was somewhat in question, partially because of her hedonistic lifestyle and also because she converted to Orthodox Christianity only just prior to her marriage to Peter III.
To assure the protection of Orthodox Christians, tens of thousands of Russian troops were stationed in Poland, many quartered at the estates of the bishops and prominent magnates for effect. The Sejm, as if not ineffective enough, was thoroughly cowed when Catherine had four bishops, three senators, and the Grand Hetman of the Crown arrested in the chamber itself and deported to Russia. The Russians were anything but subtle, threatening to tear down Warsaw "stone by stone" unless their policies were adopted.
Several small confederations surfaced with the goal of reforming the constitution and expelling the Russian occupiers, but they were negated by the Russian organized and funded Confederation of Radom. Upon the "suggestion" of its Russian backers, who surrounded the town hall where the conspirators met with a battery of artillery, the Radom conspirers even sent a envoy to Moscow requesting that Catherine send more troops to Poland to protect their Golden Freedoms.
To demonstrate to the Poles their political impotency and to deflate support for the Catholic Church, Russian Ambassador Nikolai Repnin filled the vacant position of Archbishop of Gniezno with the most despised priest in Poland, a corrupt ecclesiastic in the pay of the Russians who brazenly lived with his mistress. The appointment was made against the expressed wishes of the Polish people and the pope, but none-the-less the unqualified cleric served as primate for ten years.
The Russian troops dispatched to Warsaw made the subsequent parliamentary session, dubbed the Repnin Sejm because the Russian Ambassador kept a watchful eye from the visitor's gallery during every session, unusually sympathetic to Catherine's suggested legislation. In February of 1768 in another "Silent Sejm" in which no discussion was permitted, the liberum veto, "free" election of the king, and right to form confederations were declared unalterable principles of the Republic. In a sop to the szlachta, the landowner's power of life and death over his tenants was confirmed, as was the nobilities exclusive right to hold office. The Russians perhaps recognized that a Poland deeply divided along social lines was much less of a threat.
During the Diet of 1768 the rights of so-called dissidents, non-Catholic religious minorities that constituted less than ten percent of the population, became protected by law with the implicit threat of Russian and Prussian intervention. The solemn declaration was more than a little contrived. Catherine and Frederick gave much attention to the fact that religious minorities in Poland were not afforded full civil rights, neglecting to mention that the same held true in every country in Europe, including their own. In many ways the hypocrisy of Russian and Prussian religious policies parallel their staunch defense of Polish Golden Freedoms, civil rights that were out of the question in the home of their defenders. The policies had little basis in idealism but were designed to keep Poland weak and internally ungovernable, with the possible bonus of manufacturing unrest among the Orthodox and Protestant population of the Commonwealth. However, the prodding failed to provoke dissidence from the dissidents, who were generally well treated in Poland.
Even Ambassador Repnin recognized that the situation was unbearable and convinced Catherine to relax some of her more egregious policies, even suspending the liberum veto for financial matters, but Russian actions were too heavy-handed to endure. The Poles were particularly incensed by the arbitrary arrest of their religious and political leaders who were sent to Siberia. On February 29, 1768, several hundred lower gentry, priests, and peasants declared a Confederation at the tiny Podolian fort of Bar in the Ukraine. The Rokoszans aimed to dethrone the King, expel the Russian troops, and reestablish the dominance of the Catholic faith in Poland. Like the Siege of Jasna Gora, the Confederation of the Bar is another of the enduring folklores of the Polish Republic. The Bar's magnificent failure is cited as the beginning of modern Polish nationalism and fueled the Polish romance with the lost cause of national liberation that would persist well into Pilsudski's time. Despite the fact that Poland was still technically free, the Confederation of the Bar is considered by many the first of many Polish struggles for national independence.
From the beginning it was clear that the revolt was unlikely to succeed. Unsupported by the upper nobility that processed the only independent military in the Commonwealth, lacking money and central organization, without the assistance of foreign allies, opposed by the King, formed outside the "legitimate" government which denied it the use of the regular army or the treasury, the Confederation of the Bar was nonetheless one of the few uprisings in Poland that enjoyed genuine popular support. But unlike the Polish expulsion of foreign invaders by Wladyslaw the Elbow High in the early 14th century or the heroics during the Deluge under John Casimir in the 17th century, the Confederation of the Bar had no single, unifying leader, although Jan Michal Pac and Casimir Pulaski served the cause admirably. In a way the lack of central leadership was advantageous as the revolt was suppressed in one area another uprising spontaneously erupted elsewhere. More importantly, as opposed to earlier national uprisings, very few of the upper class joined the Confederation of the Bar. By now patriotism and devotion to the Polish cause was an alien concept to many magnates whose only loyalty was to their own power and comfort.
France, Saxony, and Austria sent subsidies but not troops. The tepid support from foreign powers ostensibly aligned with Polish sentiments was a tragic recurrent theme. Yet, somehow the patriots, using mostly guerrilla warfare, were able to establish control over Podolia, Volhynia, and Galicia. In response, Catherine dispatched over forty thousand troops to rectify the situation. The Polish king and the tiny Commonwealth army unenthusiastically opposed the Bar; however, it was the overwhelming power of the well-armed Russian troops that doomed the revolt to failure.
A seemingly minor incident in 1768 almost saved the Polish cause when a group of confederates crossed the Turkish border to elude their Cossack pursuers. The Cossacks not only violated Ottoman territory but destroyed the border town of Galta while searching for the renegades. Turkey, which had never recognized the Russian puppet Stanislaw II as King, threatened Catherine with war if she did not stop interfering in Polish affairs. It is ironic that the supposed Muslim terror, which Sobieski so famously defeated, was the only power that took action to defend the Poles.
The ensuing Russo-Turkish War forced Catherine to moderate her behavior in Poland, for awhile. Even the manpower of the Russian Empire was insufficient to stamp out the widespread Polish rebellion and fight a major war. But the Turkish distraction had another, more damaging by-product. Frederick the Great, always the opportunist, used Russia's momentary preoccupation with Turkey to advance his partition scheme, which Catherine consistently resisted. The Empress preferred to grant the Poles superficial sovereignty while Russia controlled her resources from behind the scenes. However, the scam was embarrassingly transparent.
Frederick used the excuse that because Prussia was bound by treaty to supply Russia with subsides to fight the Turks, therefore, Prussia should be compensated by acquiring Polish territory. In 1769 Frederick, hoping to gain credibility for the project with a supposedly unbiased third-party initiating the discussion, forced the Saxon Minister Lynar to propose a partition of Poland to the Russian court. The so-called Lynar Project was not well received by Catherine, who preferred to keep Poland intact and Russified.
Frederick's plan became a well publicized secret among the courts of Europe, with the exception of the slumbering Poles. Austria, tantalized at the prospect of easy booty and encouraged by France, reversed its opposition to the partition, even contemplating that the whole of Poland be divided between herself and Turkey to balance the Prussian-Russian alliance. Ultimately Austria reached an understanding with Prussia and, despite the initial resistance of Maria Theresa, was the first power to actually seize Polish territory.
In September 1769 the Austrians, crossing the border under the pretext of "sanitary control", annexed the mountainous Spisz (Zips) region in northern Hungary. No doubt recalling the technique used by Frederick the Great to justify his seizure of Silesia, the Austrians next claimed the Spisz territory was by virtue of ancient rights Hungarian, and, hence, Habsburg property. The territory had been indisputably Polish land for 360 years but a team of Austrian legal scholars were able, not surprisingly, to unearth a questionable clause in a centuries old agreement to justify the annexation as reclaiming lost land. Prior to this sudden reversal of policy, the Habsburgs supported the Confederation of the Bar, even allowing some of the rebels refuge in Hungary. Emboldened by their success, the Austrians moved further into Polish territory without even a fig leaf of justification.
The Prussians used the manufactured crisis of Austrian aggression as the basis of a diplomatic mission to St. Petersburg, where Frederick volunteered to mediate the Russo-Turkish War if Catherine agreed to the Lynar Project. Frederick claimed that Austria was on the verge of an alliance with Turkey that only could be averted by Russian approval of the Polish partition that the Habsburgs started. According to Frederick, Poland's internal weakness, which he did his best to aggravate, was creating international instability and it was the duty of responsible powers to correct the situation.
In reality, Frederick feared that Russia was on the verge of seizing the Danubian principalities from the Ottoman Empire, an acquisition that would only strengthen a potential rival. He did not believe that Austria could help the situation and in his opinion Habsburg intervention created only more imbalance in Central Europe. Frederick had nothing but contempt for the martial abilities of the Austrians and assumed their easy defeat by the Russians. If Russia seized both Ottoman and Austrian territories, Catherine's Empire was a more dangerous foe. But when speaking to Catherine, Frederick emphasized the great risk she was taking in provoking war with the Habsburg Empire. By claiming that his intervention prevented a unnecessarily risky war with Austria over the disputed territories, Frederick convinced Catherine to instead annex part of defenseless Poland, a virtually risk-free land grab that Prussia was more than happy to share. The easy pickings in Poland expanded all three Empires, preserving the balance-of-power while eliminating the possibility of a major war.
Interestingly, among the thieves, it was only Russia which opposed the first partition of Poland. Russia later got most of the blame for the deed, but it was Frederick who cleverly engineered the project from the beginning. In fact, Prussia proposed the partition of Poland on three prior occasions, in 1656, 1720, and 1733, but patiently waited until the time was right.
Although Prussia was certainly capable of taking whatever Polish territory she desired, the bitter consequences of the Silesian conquest, even in victory, gave Frederick pause. It was important that the deed be done under the cover of diplomatic necessity, by prior agreement from all major powers in Eastern Europe. Prussia knew that by herself even if she occupied Poland she could not absorb it; only with the help of willing accomplices could one of the great states of Europe be dismembered into digestible portions. In effect, Frederick did not want to be the soul bandit, he desired a gang.
Marie Theresa was torn by the moral implications of the partition project. On one hand she feared punishment in hell for seizing another's property, and on the other she was told that if she did not participate in the plans the Poles would be subjected to a bloody war of conquest instead of a peaceful division. Ultimately she rationalized her decision as the lesser of two evils.
Catherine resisted Frederick's pressure for over a year, but by September of 1771 Prussia and Austria stationed troops along the Polish border, ostensibly military cordons to protect against a cattle plague. The bovine bivouac coincided with an unwise move by the desperate Confederates in Poland who on November 3, 1771, kidnapped Stanislaw II from his royal coach, killing two of his guards in the process. Although the rebels later relented and released the king unharmed, the assault on a royal person deflated support for the rebellion in the courts of Europe. Prussia and Austria now were assured that military action in Poland would not trigger an international incident.
Catherine knew that the invasion of Poland by her rival powers was eminent; to resist the inevitable partition of Poland would do little but lessen her take. Her plan to control Poland through her former lover failed as the Poles proved unexpectedly recalcitrant. The Empress finally agreed to Frederick's plan.
Attacked from all sides by vastly superior forces, the Polish situation was hopeless. Within a year all traces of the rebellion vanished. Fittingly, the last pocket of resistance to surrender was the town of Czestochowa, the home of the Jasna Gora Monastery. In what was a recurrent theme, thousands of rebellious Poles were sent to Siberia in the aftermath of a failed rebellion.
One of the more significant victories of the Confederation of the Bar came after its defeat. In 1772 the social philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1788) published his final political tome, Considerations on the Government of Poland, which widely praised the Noble Republic and the principles the Confederation of Bar attempted to protect. Rousseau also made suggestions for improvements in the Polish system, many of which were incorporated into the 1791 Constitution. The author of "The Social Contract" favored a federalist model of democratic government in which supreme authority was vested in the legislature. Less than two decades later Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, writing under the collective name of Publius, advanced similar arguments in The Federalist Papers explaining the virtues of the pending American Constitution. Interestingly, Rousseau advocated the retention of the liberum veto with the caveat that its frivolous use be punishable by death.
Faced with the imminent invasion of her protectorate by rival powers, Russia finally agreed to the partition. Catherine, who was rarely bested in intrigue, was well aware of the political maneuvering of Frederick and never forgave it. The partitions were the beginnings of a cooling in Prussian-Russian relationships that grew into mutual hatred in the centuries to come.
On August 5, 1772, the treaty of partition was formally signed by Russia, Austria, and Prussia. As a final indignity the following year the Polish Sejm, again at the point of Russian bayonets, was forced to confirm the brigandage. Like the Poles themselves, the Russians were always concerned about legal niceties, no matter how cynical or transparent. Other than stunned silence the only resistance to the force-fed legislation was by Tadeusz Rejtan, a Sejm deputy and former member of the Confederation of the Bar, who in April 1773 attempted to prevent members of the Sejm from entering the debating chamber by dramatically throwing himself in the doorway and refusing to move, screaming, "On the blood of Christ, I adjure you, do not play the part of Judas. Kill me! Stamp on me! But do not kill the Fatherland!"The courageous sit-down strike was unsuccessful but the scene, famously depicted in an 1866 painting by Jan Matejko, was another inspiration for future Polish national liberation struggles.
To deprive the Poles of the weapon of last resort, the liberum veto, the Russians insisted that "ratification Sejm" be confederated. The rank hypocrisy of the Russian insistence that the veto be retained for other matters clearly demonstrated that their protection of the Golden Freedoms had nothing to do with liberty. Under the circumstances, the Poles had no choice but to ratify the treaty of partition.
Many Poles fled the country rather than submit to Russian rule. One of the more prominent emigrants was Casimir Pulaski (1748-1779), a former leader of the Confederation of the Bar. Pulaski, who was condemned to death in absentia for his role in kidnapping the King, escaped to France where he was recruited by the Marquis de La Fayette for service in the American colonies. Known as the "Father of American Cavalry", Pulaski fought bravely at the Battle of Brandywine, the Siege of Charleston, and the Battle of Savannah. He was killed during a cavalry charge in 1779, but was hailed as a hero by the Americans. As a tribute George Washington issued a code to identify allies crossing military lines; the challenge "Pulaski" was to be responded with "Poland". Residents of Chicago are no doubt familiar with Pulaski Road, the major north-south thoroughfare in the city named in Casimir's honor.
Another leader of the Confederation of the Bar that figured prominently in the American Revolution was Thaddeus Kosciusko, who befriended most of the American founding fathers. After the collapse of the Polish revolt Thaddeus moved to Paris, where he studied engineering. There he met Benjamin Franklin, who, recognized the talents and republican passions of the young Pole, convinced him to move to America. Upon arrival in Philadelphia in the fateful year of 1776, Kosciusko read the recently published Declaration of Independence and was moved to tears by the document that encapsulated in stunning prose his own ideas on liberty and the function of government. Kosciusko determined to meet its author rode to Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson was happy to receive a kindred soul. Jefferson and Kosciusko became great friends. Thaddeus served with George Washington in the Revolutionary War, eventually rising to the rank of Brigadier General. He was instrumental in constructing American fortifications at Philadelphia, the Delaware River, and West Point and played a significant role in the pivotal Battle of Saratoga. In 1783 he became a naturalized American citizen but returned to Poland the following year, eager to transplant Jefferson's principles to his native land.
Another example of the cross-pollination between American and Polish history was the Englishman Charles Lee. After serving in North America as a British officer in the French and Indian War, Lee journeyed to Poland where he secured a position as King Stanislaw's aid-de-camp with the rank of major-general in the Polish army. Soon afterwards he returned to the colonies and joined the American cause with the expectation that he would be appointed Commander-in-Chief. When Washington received the post Lee made every effort to discredit him, but eventually was relieved of command after his disgraceful actions at the Battle of Monmouth.
Unconstrained by legalities or military opposition and unconcerned about ethnic divisions or the preferences of their new subjects, the partitioners haggled over redrawing the map of Eastern Europe. To Russia's credit, she insisted that the claims of the culprits be reduced to a reasonable level, leaving what remained of Poland sufficient to survive. But the crime was big enough as the Commonwealth lost thirty percent of its territory and thirty-five percent of its population, including some of its richest provinces. Of course, Russian restraint was not entirely based on lofty moral principles; any Polish territory not annexed by the partitioning powers continued to be a Russian protectorate. Catherine's hypocrisy was not limited to the political field. Having taken over a large part of the Commonwealth on the pretense of protecting religious toleration, she then preceded to send troops to the countryside to force the Uniates to convert to the Orthodox Faith.
Poland after the first partition was still a viable country whose greatest threat seemed to be complete control by Russia rather than further land loss. In fact, post-partition Poland had a population equal to that of the Western European powerhouse France. Frederick hoped to conclude this Polish business in one fell swoop, but the pragmatic King was willing to wait, bragging that he intended to consume Poland "like an artichoke, leaf by leaf".
Austria received approximately 81,900 square kilometers of territory along with 2,700,000 souls, including parts of Galicia, Podolia, and the palatinates of Lemberg and Belz. Unlike the occupation of Spisz, the Austrian annexation exceeded any possible pretense of ancient title. Frederick II was amused at Catholic Austria's newfound appetite for Polish land, writing, "The Empress Catherine and I are simple robbers. I just would like to know how the empress (Maria Theresa) calmed down her confessor? She cried, when she took; the more she cried, the more she took!" Prussia took a smaller but more valuable piece of real estate − the 36,300 square kilometers and approximately 500,000 inhabitants of Royal Prussia that, despite excluding the now isolated city of Danzig, controlled most of the Commonwealth's foreign trade. Frederick's land grab finally linked the halves of the Prussian Kingdom, giving the Prussians control of the Vistula. Russia got Polish Livonia and several nearby palatines along the headwaters of the Dvina and Dnieper for a total of approximately 100,000 square kilometers and 1,300,000 new subjects. Poland lost not only her natural frontier to the south along the Carpathians, but also easy access to the Baltic. All of this booty was acquired without a formal military response from what was once the most powerful nation in Eastern Europe.
Europe expressed shock at the partition of a former great power, which was not at war with any of her violators and, in fact, supposedly enjoyed the protection of territorial integrity and freedom from the very powers that devoured her. However, shock did not translate into military action or even formal protests as the partial dismemberment was quietly accepted as a fait d accomplis by the distant Western powers. Hitler and Stalin were surprised when Western Europe reacted differently under very similar circumstance in 1939.
Meanwhile, Russia continued expanding her empire to the south, successfully concluding her war with Turkey. In the Treaty of Kucuk Kainarji, signed on July 21, 1774, the Ottomans ceded two key seaports to Catherine, giving Russians direct access to the Black Sea. The Crimean Khanate, long time vassal of the Turks, became "independent" but received the insidious protection of the Russians, dooming its Tatar inhabitants to dependency. The Russians, which by virtue of their victory finally, after five and a half centuries, shed any vestige of the Mongol yoke and became the dominant military power in the Middle East, also obtaining the unilateral right to protect religious dissidents in the Ottoman Empire, lighting a slow fuse in the largely Orthodox but Muslim dominated Balkans that exploded in 1914. The treaty signaled what became the first partition of Turkey as the Ottoman Empire continued its slow retreat.
Surprisingly, the Russians allowed meaningful reforms in what remained of the Commonwealth, recognizing that only an economically and political viable Poland could stave off future partitions, each one reducing what was in effect a Russian vassal state. Russia even enacted liberal trade policies towards Poland, hoping to jump start an economy they did much to destroy. In 1775 the Sejm, under Russian direction, increased the budget and expanded the Polish Army to 30,000 men. Government efficiency was increased by the creation of a Permanent Council of State, presided over by the king and consisting of biannually elected members divided into five departments: Finance, Police, Justice, Foreign Affairs, and War. It was the first proper ministerial government Poland ever knew. The Russians obviously meant for the Council to function as they mandated that it make decisions based on majority vote.
However, in the Sejm, which the Russians intended to reduce to impotency, the liberum veto was retained. Unanimity and the policy of an elected king, two fine sounding but perverted principles solemnly guaranteed by foreign powers that wished to emasculate and control Poland, remained the two most egregious obstacles to true autonomy. Catherine also reserved the right to protect dissidents in Poland keeping the invitation to interfere open. Russian philanthropy extended only so far.
Perhaps the most significant improvement was the creation of the Commission of National Education, widely touted as the world's first national ministry of education. The Commission was funded, in part, from wealth confiscated from the Jesuit order, which was officially abolished by the Pope in 1773. Education in Poland was dramatically overhauled as the Commission, which took over every school regardless of religious or ethnic affiliation, created national standards in textbooks, curriculum, and teacher qualifications. New schools were opened and poor students given scholarships, expanding educational opportunities to segments of society that in past languished in illiteracy. In all the Commission was responsible for two universities, seventy-four secondary schools, and an impressive 1600 parish schools, which educated girls as well as boys. Thanks to the reforms the secularized Jagiellon University and Wilno Academy became elite institutes of higher education, far superior to anything available in Russia. Latin was replaced by Polish as the language of instruction, a change which dramatically increased the number and comprehension of students. For the first time in Europe, a government sought to provide universal education to all of its citizens.
The sudden resurgence of education in the Commonwealth resulted in a vibrant outburst of literary activity. Interestingly, most of writing concentrated not on fictional flights of fantasy but political and social themes. The didactic nature of the literature was perhaps a response to the urgent and obvious need for Polish society to reinvent itself. Contemporary authors such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and d'Alembert were well known and widely discussed in Poland, laying the intellectual groundwork for national liberation movements in the immediate and distant future. The free spirit of inquiry had returned to Poland.
The economy received a boost in 1773 when the Sejm repealed the law that prevented the szlachta from engaging in commerce, here-to-fore considered beneath the noble estate. Canals were dug between major rivers, creating a network that extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea, opening up new export markets.
Thanks to the improvements in the political, financial, and educational systems, Poland experienced a period of national vitality unknown since before the days of the Saxon Kings. The two decades between the first and second partitions served as an incubation period for Polish nationalism. Perhaps the shock of the first partition provided the stimulus to institute serious reforms. In the early 1780's Chancellor Zamoyski, who failed in his earlier attempt to eliminate the liberum veto, drafted a progressive legal code that included several significant constitutional reforms. Although the proposals, in effect a proto-constitution, was dead on arrival in the Russian controlled and veto vexed Sejm, the code served as a blue print for subsequent legislation.
By the mid-1780s the partition of Poland did not appear fatal. Most of the Russian occupational troops were recalled for duty elsewhere and the solidarity of the partitioning partners was looking increasingly suspect. In 1781, Catherine aligned with Austria, hoping for Habsburg support for her scheme to oust the Turks from Constantinople and install her grandson, Constantine specifically for this reason, as a new Greek Emperor. The Russian-Prussian alliance was effectively terminated by this new understanding.
The most sweeping reforms in Polish history and its last real chance for national sovereignty happened somewhat by chance. In 1787 King Stanislaw II learned through his diplomatic sources that Turkey, who lost the Crimea to Catherine in 1783, soon would declare war against Russia. The King decided to intercept the Czarina during her triumphal tour of the Dnieper regions recently absorbed into the Russian Empire and proposed a Polish-Russian Alliance. However, the king was forbidden by law to leave the territory of the Commonwealth without the Sejm's approval, and was forced to wait across the river in nearby Kaniv while Stanislaw's political enemies dined with Catherine in Kiev. The embarrassing restriction hardly helped the King to project a position of strength. When Catherine finally graced Poniatowski with her presence, meeting him for the first time since his expulsion from St. Petersburg in 1758 on the imperial barge that was anchored in the Dnieper, the King offered his alliance against the Ottomans. In return Catherine asked to give Moldavia and a Black Sea port to the Commonwealth. Naively anticipating her grateful acceptance, the King called the Sejm in session to expeditiously approve the expected treaty.
Catherine did not so much as disapprove of the alliance as dismiss it. There was no reason to pay for something she already owned. That the Poles believed they controlled their own foreign policy must have seemed comic to the Czarina, who knew where the real power lay. To rub salt in the wounds, the Empress blithely rejected the king's invitation to an elaborate dinner party he had arranged for the evening. Catherine did, however, allow Stanislaw II to convene the 1788 parliamentary session as a confederation, a decision that had lasting consequences. Catherine had instructed the King to raise new Polish troops for her Turkish campaign, which required Sejm approval, and did not want the liberum veto to obstruct the necessary legislation.
The rejection of the alliance left an embarrassing and gaping hole in the Sejm agenda, leaving the noblemen plenty of time to discuss their miserable plight and suggest reforms that might improve their situation. The fateful Sejm of 1788 had the good fortune to include in its number several remarkable political theorists and to convene at a time that Russia was preoccupied with war with Turkey. As Stanislaw II predicted, the Ottomans, unhappy with their recent territorial losses and encouraged by the British and French, attacked Russia. The distraction was complicated by a simultaneous conflict with Sweden, who declared war on Russia in 1788. The wars lasted four years, long enough to give Poland the breathing space necessary to accomplish one of the most remarkable political transformations in history.
The "Quadrennial Sejm", named for its four year duration, was led by a new generation of enthusiastic Polish patriots: Adam Casimir Czartoryski, Ignacy Potocki, and Stanislaw Staszic. The Poles launched an ambitious program of reform that began with the brazen rejection of foreign "guarantees". The Permanent Council of State was abolished and for the first time in the Republic's history a tax was imposed on the szlachta and the church, euphemistically called a "voluntary contribution" to soothe noble sensibilities. The army was increased to sixty-five thousand, the royal prerogative was strengthened, and direct contact was established with Western European powers. Most significantly, in September of 1789, the Sejm appointed a Commission to prepare a constitution for the Commonwealth. The movement received encouragement from a very unlikely source.
Frederick the Great died in 1786 and was replaced by his nephew, Frederick William II (1744-1797). The new Frederick was decidedly not so great, a rather feeble-minded and mercurial aristocrat who came under the influence of Johann Wollner, a Prussian Rasputin who dabbled in mysticism, alchemy, and power politics. The Prussian King and his advisor were uneasy with the aggressive posture of the Habsburg and Russian Empires. The new politicos, as deceptive as their predecessor but not nearly as prescient, decided Polish opposition was a convenient method to weaken their powerful rivals without risking direct confrontation. Prussia just concluded an alliance with England and Holland, and if Poland cast off the Russian yoke, the new center of power in Central Europe might shift to Potsdam.
Prussia sent an envoy to the Sejm who suggested that the Commonwealth demand the withdrawal of Russian troops from Poland. Observant Poles may have noted that helpful suggestions from foreign powers were usually not in their best interest. In fact King Stanislaw II, who was supportive of reform, cautioned that such an unenforceable demand was needlessly provocative as Poland was not yet in a position to dictate terms to the Russian Empire. But Russia with more than she could handle elsewhere, reluctantly agreed to withdraw her troops and to suspend her practice of using Polish territory as a transit route to the Balkan front. But she did not forget the incident.
Adding more fuel to the patriotic fire, Frederick William II made an unexpected concession when he complied with the Sejm's demand for renouncing Prussia's guarantees of the Golden Freedoms and his right to protect religious minorities in Poland. The latter agreement was particularly shocking at a time when Frederick was conducting a virtual Protestant Inquisition in Prussia. The Prussian King further stated that it was Poland's right, even duty, to formulate a constitution that facilitated effective rule.
Of course, Prussian support was not cost-free. Frederick William II expected the Poles to support a complex territorial exchange as part of his "Prussian System" that was designed to provide a bulwark against Russian expansion, coincidentally expanding Prussian territory. Poland was asked to give Prussia the key cities of Danzig and Thorn and in turn be given back Galicia from Austria, who was in theory to receive Ottoman territory as compensation. The Turks were supposed to bargain away their Passarowicz frontier to the scheme in exchange for Prussian mediation in the Russo-Turkish War. The plan had only one flaw: none of the countries asked to volunteer territory to the Prussian System had the slightness desire to surrender their land. The "system" was only enthusiastically supported by the one who stood to gain the most and sacrifice the least. Prussia was slated to gain lucrative concessions with little risk of a military confrontation. Not surprisingly, the bargain looked unbalanced to the Poles.
Although Great Britain's Parliament was generally opposed to the Prussian System, Prime Minister Pitt, who nervously watched the Russian Empire advance by Baltic and Crimean pincers that threatened to engulf Eastern Europe, was supportive. His concern was summarized by Edmund Burke, who commented after the first partition of Poland, "The Empress of Russia has breakfasted, where shall she dine"? William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), the son of the hero of the Seven Years War who died at age forty-six after serving as Prime Minister for almost half his life, sought to contain Russia, but was unable or unwilling to risk military action. A federation of European countries friendly to Great Britain was the more attractive alternative. Pitt was neither the first nor the last to propose a federation of smaller northern and central European states to check the rising power of Russia but in the context of the war with Revolutionary France, Great Britain had more pressing concerns. Although the Prussian concept had some obvious flaws, it was a step in the right direction. Lobbying on behalf of the Prussian plan, Pitt advised the Polish minister in London to accept the arrangement, saying, "I will speak plainly to you. I mean to coerce Russia if you will oblige Prussia".
Poland was advised to consider Pitt's offer. Great Britain promised to compensate Poland for the loss of Danzig and Thorn with generous trade concessions. In any case the cities already were financially hobbled by trade restrictions from Prussia who controlled their access. If Pitt appeased the Russians and Prussia honored her commitments, two huge ifs, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth may have gotten the time needed to reform its political system and survive. The Poles would have been well served to consult their own history: Casimir the Great's concession of Silesia to Bohemia in 1339 was a bitter pill, but it gave Poland the breathing space needed to build a nation.
The Sejm rejected Frederick's territorial scheme but agreed to a Prussian-Polish defensive alliance in 1790. The treaty explicitly stated that Prussia would support Poland militarily if attacked, an assurance that emboldened reformers in the Sejm. Austria, too, under the leadership of the new Emperor Leopold II, made friendly overtures to the Commonwealth. Seemingly secure with their new allies and free to act independently while Russia struggled with Turkey and Sweden, the Poles constructed one of the more remarkable constitutions in history. Just two years after the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the implementation of the American Constitution, the Poles introduced their sweeping reorganization of government before the Sejm.
Like the American Constitutional Convention in 1787, which met in secret and had no real authority to change the government, the birth of the Polish Constitution was a quasi-legal affair, essentially a non-violent coup d'état. Of course, in Poland, the reformers had no legal recourse that was allowed.
Although the constitution was prepared almost two years in advance, its carefully orchestrated introduction was delayed until success was assured. Concerned about rogue magnates and Russian interference, the conspirators patiently waited for an opportune moment. On May 3, 1791, during the Easter recess when many opponents were known to be out of town, supporters suddenly placed the groundbreaking constitution before a Sejm filled with carefully selected pro-reform deputies who assembled in secret. In fact only 182 of 504 deputies and senators attended the parliamentary session of May 3rd. Royal Guards were posted on the perimeter of the building to prevent disruption from curious onlookers.
A sense of urgency was created by the carefully planned reading of a series of foreign dispatches predicting an eminent partition of the remaining parts of the Commonwealth, a fabricated prediction that unfortunately came true. After a perfunctory debate, the bold Government Act passed overwhelmingly, although only a majority was necessary as the diet convened, by Catherine's insistence, as a confederation. The vote was a forgone conclusion as one hundred of the 182 attendees were collaborators in the plan. The possibility of eminent invasion was used to justify a blatant violation of parliamentary procedure as the constitution was approved by acclamation, without being distributed in print and discussed in detail as required by law. After taking an oath on the Bible, Stanislaw II made an impassioned speech beseeching the deputies to give their support to the constitution, claiming it was the only instrument available to save Polish sovereignty. As according to script, the manufactured exigency required the assembly to quickly adjourn, before the matter was reconsidered. The excited crowd roared their approval and, carrying the king on their shoulders, marched to the nearby Church of St. John to sanctify the action.
Theatrics aside, the new constitution was a remarkable accomplishment. The Polish constitution, the first modern European and only the second codified constitution in history, post-dating the American Constitution by four years, was a wonderful combination of the possible and the preferred. Polish government frozen in place for over two hundred years, its over-emphasis on personal liberty having the unintended and countervailing consequence of preventing the normal evolution that political institutions need to survive. The constitution attempted to leap frog a period of enlightened despotism, considered by some political theorists as a necessary intermediate step, to a more advanced era of enlightened liberty. The Poles drew on elements of the English and American constitutions, as well as concepts from French, Austrian, and even Prussian Enlightenment to produce a truly impressive document.
The events of May 3rd were no less than a revolution, in many ways directed against the Poles themselves. One of the more admirable aspects of the constitution was that it was the creation of the nobility and King who selflessly sacrificed many of their own privileged positions for the good of the nation. The constitution was a legitimate attempt to establish a modern Republic that not only revered, but had the mechanisms to protect and perpetuate, liberty for all.
In the preamble to the 1791 Constitution, the Poles acknowledged the necessary link of sovereignty with personal freedom, stating that,
"our destiny depends on the establishment and perfection of a national constitution", "free of the ignominious dictates of foreign coercion" and upon the "external independence and internal liberty of the people".
The Constitution made sweeping changes in the Polish government. The liberum veto was abolished and, in most cases, replaced with majority rule. Despite the fact that the Sejm that created the document was confederated, future confederations were declared illegal. The English concept of ministerial accountability was adopted in which ministers were appointed by the king for a two-year term instead of life tenure and were dismissed by a two-thirds majority vote. Class distinctions were eliminated; everyone was declared equal before the law. Towns, which previously were virtually ignored due to the rural lifestyle of the voting szlachta, were to be properly represented in the Sejm. Although Catholicism was made the official religion of the state, religious toleration was once again made statutory. The Permanent Council was abolished. Parliament was declared the supreme legislative and executive authority that was elected on a biannual basis. The separate offices of State for the Crown and the Grand Duchy were replaced by a "Committee of Two Nations", essentially abolishing Lithuanian autonomy. In preparation for the Russian response that was sure to come, the Polish Army was increased to 100,000 men, four times the number allotted in the 1717 "Silent Sejm". Characteristically, the constitution made no provisions to pay for the new troops.
Contrary to half a millennium of tradition, the basic premise behind the voting franchise was significantly altered. Electoral rights were no longer based on a personal, inheritable privilege tied to a military obligation, but upon property qualifications similar to those in contemporary England and America. It was assumed that productive members of society with a vested interest in the success of the nation proved more constructive voters.
In what may seem as a contradiction, in order to best preserve liberty the "free election" of the king was abolished, replaced by a hereditary but limited constitutional monarchy with ministerial responsibility. Since Stanislaw II had no children it was decided that the throne again would become the procession of the Wettin Dynasty. Frederick Augustus of Saxony, the great-grandson of Augustus the Strong, was offered the Polish throne. Although he declined the position, probably due to the unlikelihood of its longevity, the Saxon King was persuaded a decade later to accept a similar role in Poland under the protection of Napoleon. Despite the tragic history associated with Saxon Kings, the Poles believed that in absence of foreign interference and with strict limits to the King's power, this alternative was eminently superior to free elections. Polish elections, manipulated by foreign powers, riff with corruption and secret deals, often contrary to the wishes of the majority, were so disastrous that it was not yet possible to imagine that the process could achieve satisfactory results. The prospect of a return to a hereditary monarchy was not universally accepted and almost certainly would become a bone of contention had the constitution been fully enacted, however, the choice appeared the lesser of two evils.
The decision to resurrect a hereditary monarchy was best explained by Stanislaw Staszic (1755-1826), a Polish priest, philosopher, statesman, and geologist, who wrote that:
there was never any doubt, namely, that election is more suitable to the freedom of the nation than suuceesion to the throne," however, "we should for the good of Poland, in order to prepare us for true freedom, for a length of time come under autocracy which would make us more equal to each other and erase these persistant superstitions and prejudices... True, succession to the throne is one step towards losing freedom. But the election of kings is halfway towards losing the nation. First, the nation − then freedom. First, life − then comfort.
In any case, the theoretical transfer of executive powers from an elective chief magistrate to a hereditary constitutional monarch formally marked the end of the First Republic. To all appearances, a new era of progressive government dawned.
The Constitution was not the only reform advanced by the political theorists in the Sejm. An economic compact was devised that established a national bank, authorized the issuing of paper money, provided for the protection of private property, and regulated trade and investments. The Polish reform preceded by seven months and was in many ways similar to Alexander Hamilton's magnum opus "Report on Manufactures" which established the economic policies crucial to America's rise to prominence.
One glaring omission in the constitution was that serfdom was not abolished, although peasants were given vague assurances about legal rights. Like the American Constitution did not abolish slavery, realistic political reforms had its limits. The authors of both documents recognized that the servitude and oppression of a lower class was reprehensible, but unavoidable in the near term. In both cases the significant segments of society necessary for passage, the American South and the Polish Magnates, were permanently alienated by what they perceived as a threat to their livelihood. Both political theorists danced around the peculiar institutions for the time being but hoped that future conditions would prove more conducive to their abolition. The Poles rediscovered that government could do more than mindlessly protect past prerogatives − it could actually govern, if given the chance. It remained to see if that chance materialized.
The new constitution was widely acclaimed, receiving praise from Thomas Paine, Charles James Fox, Edmund Burke, and French Revolutionaries who introduced their own constitution in September of that year. Karl Marx later called the 1791 Constitution, "the only work of freedom which Central Europe has ever produced on its own accord". Even Frederick William II gushed over "the happy revolution which has, at last, given to Poland a wise and regular government!" Further, Prussia solemnly pledged to maintain and strengthen ties with the invigorated Republic. Austria also welcomed the new Polish constitution, if not on principle then because a revived Poland was seen as a potential ally. Leopold even went so far as to say that the new Polish constitution would have a stabilizing effect in Central Europe as well as prevent revolution.
Catherine, preoccupied with the Turkish War, only watched events in furious impotency. In the absence of Russian troops, the arbiters of false reform were forced to withdraw from the Commonwealth from 1787-1792 to deal with the Ottoman threat while Poland made real political progress which threatened to resurrect the great state. However, Catherine's years in Poland taught that Polish unity was fragile and opposition easily manufactured. After the Turkish War ended in January of 1792, Catherine was free to plot her revenge.
The first Russian attempt to derail Polish reform was the tried and true method of bribing the local dietines. At the first post-constitution general election in February Catherine's paid deputies double-crossed her, accepting her bribes but voting overwhelmingly for the constitution anyway. The Poles simply were not honest politicians, universally defined as one who, once bought, stays bought.
Taking another tact, the Russians encouraged a small band of nobles to assemble in the Ukrainian town of Targowicz, where a confederation against the constitution was declared on May14th, 1792. Catherine secured only thirteen signatures for the confederation that claimed to defend the Golden Freedoms against a Jacobin conspiracy, but the number proved sufficient to launch a counter-attack against Polish independence. The Confederation of Targowicz became synonymous with treason in the centuries to come and is considered a political insult to this day. With the obligatory pretext in place, Russia declared war in support of the patriotic confederates. The Poles expected the Russian response. Although concentrating on military preparations, it was hoped that Poland's new alliance with Prussia and friendship with Austria would give the Muscovites pause.
Any semblance of serenity was shattered by the harsh reality of power politics. Although the terms were clear, a Polish delegation was sent to Berlin to assure compliance with the treaty of mutual assistance. Frederick William II refused to honor the treaty, speciously claiming that his agreement was made with the prior government of Poland, which ceased to exist after the adoption of the constitution. His new perspective was no doubt tempered by Catherine's reaction to the situation. When it became known that Russia would not quietly acquiesce to Poland's transformation and was, in fact, sending an army of 100,000 troops to crush the rebellion, Prussian policy made an abrupt u-turn. In addition, to his refusal to honor the Polish treaty, and contrary to his very public statements, Frederick now opposed the Polish constitution, which he claimed he never supported. In an intellectually dishonest letter to Stanislaw explaining his new position, Frederick William claimed he concurred with the constitution, but would not support or protect it, despite the fact that the sixth article of the 1790 treaty stated that Prussia was bound to protect the republic from foreign interference "at any time or in any manner". The rebuke was a flagrant violation of the terms of the recent treaty but nothing out of the ordinary for European politics.
Poland was suddenly faced with two powerful enemies converging on its capital. A levee en masse was declared while the tiny Polish army mobilized for the defense of the Republic. The Commonwealth's southern army, commanded by the king's nephew Joseph Poniatowski assisted by the up-and-coming Thaddeus Kosciusko, fought admirably, slowing the enemy advance and inflicting severe losses. The northern army fought equally well, but both Polish groups were forced backwards to Warsaw, where they hoped to merge and make a final stand.
Poniatowski (1763-1813), born and raised in Vienna, was commissioned in the Austrian army in 1780, rising to colonel and aid to Emperor Joseph II within seven years. In 1789 he was transferred to the Polish army at the request of his uncle King Stanislaw, who had served as Poniatowski's guardian after his father death. In his capacity as Commander of the Royal Infantry Guard, Poniatowsk protected the Sejm during the passage of the May 3, 1791, Constitution and by 1792 was promoted to general, in charge of the Polish army in the Ukraine. An Austrian by birth he became a Pole by choice, eventually assuming the leadership of the Polish military during the revolt, but his political acumen was equally impressive. He urged the king to participate more actively in the struggle and advised granting full freedom to the peasants so, "we would either perish with honor or Poland would be retained as a great power".
Unfortunately the king, who until now was a beacon of strength, lost his nerve. In July of 1792 Stanislaw II deserted to the other side, joining the odious Confederation of Targowicz. He did so fearing complete annihilation of the outmanned Polish armies, hoping that his compliance would mitigate the peace terms. Instead his appeasement merely gave the harsh terms that followed the appearance of legality. Whatever his noble reasons, Stanislaw II was labeled a sunshine patriot and forever tainted with suspicion of treason. Poniatowski was so angered that he briefly considered arresting his uncle. Without the king's support and hopelessly outmatched, the resistance collapsed. The army and members of the Sejm who supported the constitution deserted in droves with most seeking sanctuary in nearby Saxony.
Following their well worn script, Prussia and Russia herded together a handful of malleable Polish noblemen, often recruited from the dregs of society, and formed an ad hoc Sejm in Grodno charged with ratifying the dictated peace terms, which included demands for a new partition. The Constitution of 1791 was dismissed as a "dangerous novelty". Russian negotiators reasoned with brutality and threats, as always their most compelling arguments. Deputies who refused to accept the Russian terms were sometimes dragged out of the Sejm and beaten in the courtyard in full view of the deliberating body. Still, it took three months for the Poles who had the misfortune to represent their country to agree.
The Treaty of January 4t, 1793, signaled the second partition of Poland, a loss of territory much more threatening to national survival than the first. The 1772 partition was only a territorial loss and did not necessarily threaten the existence of the nation. But after the second partition only thirty percent of the Commonwealth remained, an impotent rump state incapable of internal rule. Prussia took 58,000 square kilometers, including Danzig and all of Wielkopolska, land that was Polish since the origins of the state. Still, the Prussians claimed the territorial plundering was just reclaiming what the Teutonic Knights lost, geographically incorrect but perhaps similar in spirit to their acquisitive ancestors.
The Russians grabbed 250,000 square kilometers including most of Belarus and all of the Ukraine. Catherine, although not a Russian native, justified the partition as the fulfillment of her historic mission to reunify all the lands of the "old Rus". She even commissioned a medal bearing the inscription, "I have recovered what was torn away," as if the cynical coinage was somehow proof of her righteousness. As an aside, the second partition violated Catherine's explicit promise to the leaders of the Confederation of Targowicz. As usual, Russia's "useful idiots" outlived their usefulness but retained their idiocy.
Austria, who started the dubious business of "recovered territory", was busy fighting France and did not share in the spoils. The Poles which remained in the sad remnants of what was once the greatest nation in Eastern Europe were forced to return to an unworkable government anchored in the poisonous Golden Freedoms. Faced with draconian taxes and forced to pay for the Russian garrison that policed the country, the economy of the Commonwealth collapsed. In 1793 the six largest Warsaw banks declared insolvency. The only utility for what was now Poland was as a buffer state or staging ground for her masters. Vibrant national reform and renewal was replaced with anarchy and despair.
Part of the reason for Poland's harsh treatment also served to give patriots hope − the ongoing French Revolution. The French Revolution (1789-1799) was a social tsunami that threatened monarchial governments throughout Europe. Unfortunately the original goals of democracy, citizenship, inalienable rights, and separation of power were perverted in the bloodbath of "The Terror" as Jacobin revolutions threatened to spread throughout Europe.
At the time of the second Polish partition King Louis XVI was awaiting trial for "conspiracy against public liberty". On January 21, 1793, Louis was beheaded, sending shock waves of fear among the aristocracy. The Revolution represented a new type of threat to the ruling elite; before threats came from individuals who wished to change rulers rather than the method of rule. Given the timing, the partition partners were in no mood to humor Polish idealism. Poland was the eastern battleground where the forces of dynastic imperialism faced the democratic principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, championed by the French revolutionists. Although the old order lost control of France, it had no intentions of allowing a similar experiment in Poland.
Despite the excesses of the French Revolution, which luminaries such as Thomas Jefferson dismissed by saying, "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants", the Poles looked to the citizens of France for support. Thaddeus Kosciusko was dispatched to Paris to solicit aid for the Polish cause but was surprised to learn that the new self-proclaimed rulers of the French Republic, the Committee of Public Safety, considered Polish patriotism the tool of an aristocratic elite. By assuming power, the French revolutionists entered the world of real politics. The French international position was precarious; there was no need to antagonize Prussia, who they hoped to woe as an ally, over the lost cause in Poland. Despite the rejection the Poles were fatally associated with the Jacobin revolt, loosing what little support they had in the courts of Europe. With no hope for foreign assistance, Polish survival was entirely dependent on the Poles themselves.
In 1794 Russia, frightened by what appeared to be a Jacobin revolution in the Commonwealth, decided to disband the Lilliputian Polish army and incorporate it and Polish conscripts into the Russian army, which was preparing for possible action in France. The disgruntled remnants of the Polish army refused the mobilization order, and resolved to make a final stand. On March 15, 1794, a Polish officer named Madalinski took command of seven hundred Polish cavalrymen and began the insurrection at Pultusk, a small town near Warsaw. The Russian army assembled to reverse the revolution in France was instead turned on Poland. Fortunately for France, Polish resistance was so determined and protracted that Russian troops never returned to their original mission.
Kosciusko, who preferred to delay action until the resistance was more properly organized, knew the die was cast. He hurried to Poland, along with thousands of other émigrés from all over Europe eager to join the fight. Kosciusko (1746-1817), awarded the Order of Cincinnati after his service in the American War of Independence, and like his namesake returned to his farm in his native village, but after the revolt in 1792 he retired to Leipzig. His idealism, intellect, and military experience made him the natural leader of the uprising, and he was declared by proclamation generalissimo upon his arrival in Cracow. Poniatowski also returned to Poland, but because of his relation with the vacillating King was denied a leadership role in the revolt. Undeterred, Poniatowski volunteered as an ordinary soldier, but rose to the rank of citizen-general during the later stages of the conflict.
On March 24, 1794, Kosciusko read the "Act of Insurrection" in Cracow's market square, calling the Poles to arms to reinstate the 1791 Constitution. The real goal was independence. To accomplish that end, the Act named Kosciusko Naczelnik, meaning leader or dictator. Upon accepting the role, the Polish patriot publicly swore the following oath:
I, Thadeus Kosciusko, swear to the Polish nation, in presence of the Supreme Being, that I will never employ the power which has been entrusted to me against any citizen; but that I will exert it only to defend the integrity of my country, to recover the national independence, and to strengthen the general liberty of the nation!
Curiously, one of the first acts of the new revolutionary government was to issue a property tax, which dampened enthusiasm among the noble class but raised critical funds and demonstrated to the people that the revolt was not exclusively in the interests of the privileged class.
As a former aid-de-camp to La Fayette during the American Revolutionary War, Kosciusko had every reason to believe that a determined national resistance, even against a professional army, could be successful. However, he realized that only an uprising that utilized every able-bodied man from all classes of society stood any chance. Promising freedom for the peasants and land grants for those who fought, Kosciusko added several thousand peasants, many armed only with long scythes, to the four thousand professional Polish soldiers who committed to the fight. Not used to treatment as anything other than slaves to the soil, the response of the lower classes was impressive. But the promises, once given, proved hard to retract. The genie of political equality was out of the bottle.
As the peasant army marched to Warsaw they were intercepted at Raclawice on April 4, 1794, by a superior Russian force. The Poles had a disproportional amount of cavalry and a few cannon, but they sorely lacked rifles, the key component in infantry effectiveness. Consequently, normal military tactics were adjusted to the motley mix. The key component of Kosciusko's unusual force was the make shift Kosinierzy scythe-bearing units. The peasants straightened the angled blades of their scythes into straight points, creating improvised pikes. Kosciusko, employing tactics he perfected in the American Revolution, used his regular troops as a distraction while the Kosinierzy stealthy advanced to within a few hundred yards of the Russian artillery positions. The battle hung in the balance until the peasants armed with scythes rushed the Russian cannons. A peasant named Wojciech Bartos, who sprinted ahead of his comrades, became a Polish folk hero when he placed his cap over the vent hole of a loaded cannon, preventing the gun from firing into the charging masses. The surprised Russians artillerymen fled in terror before the "reapers of death", allowing the Polish force to sweep the enemy from the field.
The battle of Raclawice, the first set-piece Polish victory since Sobieski, electrified the Polish people, creating a wave of enthusiasm the Russians found difficult to stamp out. Kosciusko did much to inspire popular uprisings throughout Poland when he appeared after the battle dressed in a sukmana, a traditional Polish costume of lesser Poland. The scene is famously depicted in Jan Matejko's 1888 painting, "The Battle of Raclawice". The battle received further tribute when the 303rd Polish Fighter Squadron that, despite its relative small number inflicted fifteen percent of German losses in the 1940 Battle of Britain, included a home-made scythe as part of their logo, prominently painted on the sides of their planes.
When news of the battle reached Warsaw two weeks later the population, led by a simple cobbler, revolted. The uprising occurred on April 17th thanks to a bit of fortuitous intelligence. The Russians were aware of unrest in the capital and planned to disarm the Polish garrison in Warsaw on the 18th. According to the plan, Russian soldiers dressed as Polish guards were stationed at church doors, sure to be full of Poles at mass on Easter eve. Russian troops would overwhelm the under-manned garrison and powder magazines while the guards prevented anyone from leaving the church. Fortunately the tailor contracted to make the phony uniforms alerted patriots in the city, and the Polish insurrectionists decided to seize the armaments before the Russian plan materialized.
When it was evident that the population was revolting (no disrespect intended) the king, cautious as usual, issued a proclamation condemning the violence, but Stanislaw II's association with the hated Confederation of Targowicz negated all popular respect for the king's edicts. Just as the revolt seemed to lose steam, the Poles managed to seize the Warsaw arsenal which allowed the arming of the masses. This was the decisive factor in Polish victory. After a two-day street battle in which the beleaguered Russians were attacked from all directions, a truce was organized allowing most of the surviving Russians to leave the city. Of the seven thousand Russian soldiers occupying Warsaw, more than half were killed or captured. A small band of diehard Muscovites who barracked themselves in the Russian embassy were overtaken later that day and in the ruins of the building the Poles found secret documents naming Polish spies in the pay of the Czarina. Many of the unfortunate conspirators along with captured Russian nobility, merchants, administrators and former members of the Confederation of Targowicz were killed or beaten by the triumphant mob. However, given the circumstances, the violence was rather limited. As evidence, the king and his advisors sat unprotected in the Warsaw Castle, yet no one so much as raised a hand against him. When Kosciusko learned of the street justice he issued an order to forbid it and for the most part, the order was obeyed. In fact, Polish revolutions, such as the 1794 uprising, were notoriously bloodless. The murder of civilians was a Russian specialty, rarely reciprocated by the Poles.
Inspired by the success if not the proximity of the revolutionists, the king, as was his habit, again changed sides, now giving his full if feckless support to the revolt. The Warsaw success spawned a similar uprising in Wilno, led by an unabashed Jacobin named Jakub Jansinski. Kosciusko declared the country free and agreed to head a new revolutionary government. On May 7th he issued the Manifesto of Polaniec suspending serfdom, granting the peasants civil liberty, and promising to protect the lower classes from abuses of the szlachta. The inclusion of peasants to the political nation did much to recruit the masses, but many nobles were cool to the new order and increasingly were reluctant to support the uprising. However, another estate that typically remained neutral were active participants in the struggle as the Jewish community formed the first Jewish military unit since Biblical times.
Unlike the American Revolution, enemy reinforcements were not an ocean away and still no foreign power came to Poland's aid. The specter of the French Revolution, which scarcely a year ago committed regicide and was currently knee-deep in the bloodbath of "the Terror", weighed heavily on the minds of European leaders. No monarchal power dared assist the Poles and Russian and Prussian resolve was no doubt increased. Even traditional Polish supporter Turkey pledged neutrality in the conflict. The threat was not just Polish independence, but Polish example. If the Poles rose up and established a free society in which the rights of the lower class were respected, so might the oppressed subjects of other autocratic governments. It should be remembered that in many ways the people of Russia and Prussia were more victims of their leaders than the Poles. Imperial Russia simply could not afford to allow Polish constitutionalism to succeed.
Foreign troops poured into Poland to suppress the Kosciusko Uprising. Despite heavy losses inflicted by the ragtag Commonwealth forces, Prussian and Russian armies inexorably closed in on Warsaw. Kosciusko managed to repulse a forty thousand man Prussian army personally led by Frederick William after a two month siege of the Polish capital, but Poland could not hope to win a war of attrition. Late in the game, with the issue no longer in doubt, the Austrians also sent troops into Poland; the Habsburgs did not want to miss out on the spoils again.
On October 10, 1794, Kosciusko, despite being outnumbered four to one, made a desperate attempt to prevent the foreign armies from linking, but was wounded and captured at Maciejowice. The news of Kosciusko's capture spread rapidly, demoralizing the beleaguered Poles. A contemporary historian recounted the effect of the loss of their spiritual leader:
Many women miscarried at the tidings; many invalids were seized with burning fevers, some fell into fits of madness which never left them, and men and women were seen in the streets wringing their hands, beating their heads against the walls, and exclaiming in tones of despair "Kosciusko is no more; the country is lost"!
Kosciusko remained a prisoner in St. Petersburg for two years until set free by Catherine's successor and son, Paul I, who reputedly ordered the release to spite his dead mother. The only European assistance came in the form of an inspirational poem by the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell, which concluded: "Hope for a season bade the earth farewell, And freedom shrieked when Kosciusko fell". But Poland needed soldiers, not stanzas. Without their charismatic leader and hopelessly outnumbered, the revolt fell apart.
By November the Russians were on the outskirts of Warsaw, closing in for the kill. On the 4th, an all-out assault on the right-bank suburb of Praga broke the Polish defenses, allowing twenty-four thousand Russian troops and their ruthless Cossack allies to rampage through the city. Supposedly as revenge for Russian losses suffered in Warsaw in April, the soldiers burned, raped and murdered any citizen with the misfortune to be trapped in the suburb. As many as twenty thousand civilians, mostly Jews, died in the "Massacre of Praga". The massacre terrified the citizens of Warsaw, who offered no further resistance. Thanks in part to the pleadings of the Papal Nuncio and the British Minister William Gardner, defenseless Warsaw was spared similar atrocities.
By November 16th it was all over. Polish forces officially surrendered and the king was sent into exile. Again thousands of rebellious Poles made their way in chains to the wastelands of Siberia. Stanislaw II was forced to abdicate, but Catherine allowed her former lover one final favor, giving him refuge in St. Petersburg where he remained as a virtual prisoner until his death in1798. From his exile the former king later reflected, "I have always wished for the happiness of my country, and I have only caused it misfortune!" Stanislaw also may have noted that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In the end Poland did not destroy itself because it refused to reform, but because it did. Its only hope for survival, or rather existence, was to do nothing, which was intolerable. Despite the failure of the revolution, the struggle served as a potent legend for the future.
The pilfering powers, Russia, Prussia, and Austria which was allowed some sort of perverse honor among thieves to share in the spoils despite her minimal military contribution, had already signed a treaty of final partition on October 24, 1795, which further divided remaining Polish lands among themselves. There was no need to consult the Poles, or seek their reluctant approval to give the facade of legality as there was no longer any Polish government left to coerce.
The triumphant troika was eager to gain easy land in Poland, having experienced unexpected difficulty with Revolutionary France. Austria, somehow overlooking Sobieski's heroics that saved the Habsburg Empire only a century before, took Western Galicia and Southern Masovia, as well as domination over the "Free City of Crakow", which it annexed in 1846. Prussia received Podlachia and what remained of Masovia which contained the city of Warsaw. Russia got the rest, most significantly the city of Wilno.
By the time her assassins finished carving up the remains, any semblance of ancient territorial rights were subordinated to naked greed. The new boundaries were entirely artificial, not based on any historical, ethnic, economic, or geographical criteria but rather the product of an acquisitive scramble that almost caused a war between the partitioning powers. All told, Russia received sixty-two percent of the Commonwealth's land and forty-five percent of her people while Prussia garnered twenty percent of the area and twenty-three percent of the population. Austria annexed eighteen percent and thirty-two percent respectively.
Poland, the Serene Republic, last bastion of liberty in Eastern Europe, protector of the faith, ceased to exist. Her cultural, civic, and spiritual revival in the final years did not save her; in fact it sealed her fate. The greatest experiment in consensual government in continental Europe failed, seeming to confirm the widely held belief that governing by the elite was the only viable human alternative.
The dismemberment of one of the half-dozen great states in Europe was considered an illegal, immoral, and dishonorable deed committed by the supposedly enlightened heads of three Christian dynasties. Western Powers were particularly offended because at the time of Poland's absorption she was engaged in a national revival based on principles of government that closely resembled their own beliefs. One of the reasons that Polish history typically downplays the "Enlightenment" that was sweeping through Western Europe was that their loss of national soveriegnty coincided with, and in fact, was a victim of, the enlightened absolutism advocated by such visionaries as Voltaire. Perhaps the most shocking element was the magnitude of the crime; in 1795 the lands of the former Commonwealth were the fourth most populated area in Europe, its fourteen million inhabitants exceeded only by France, the Holy Roman Empire, and Russia.
Apparently unconcerned about international opinion, Frederick II proved equally adept as his predecessor in making inflammatory anti-Catholic remarks, boasting he "partook eucharistically of Poland's body". The only real assistance provided by Europe was by their representatives in Poland. Although told by the Russians that their services were no longer needed, the British minister, the Papal Nuncio, and the charges d' affaires of Holland, Sweden, and Saxony refused to leave a Poland they still officially recognized, offering their embassies as asylum to thousands of frightened Poles. The British House of Commons thoroughly condemned the action, calling the partition, "the most flagrant instance of profligate perfidy that has ever disgraced the annals of mankind". However, even Edmund Burke, the great Irish statesman who supported the American and Polish Revolutions, recognized that Great Britain was in no position to challenge what appeared an inevitable outcome in far off Poland saying, that "Poland might be, in fact, considered as a country on the moon". Burke, like most of Europe, was far more concerned with the ongoing French Revolution to waste precious resources on a distant country that appeared too far gone to save. The European reaction was similar to the tacit acceptance of "spheres of influence" after World War II.
The elimination of Poland as a sovereign state, while despicable, was not unprecedented. Frederick's snatching of Silesia was a similar, if smaller scale, crime. The Poles themselves partitioned Ruthenia in the 14th century and Prussia in the fifteenth. Europeans at the end of the 18th century probably condemned the events in Poland, but had no problem "partitioning" Asian, African, or American nations. The sins of our fathers must, at some point, have acquired acceptability as virtually all modern states are composed, at least in part, of territories not originally their own.
The partitioning powers taking physical procession of Poland; they now were determined to destroy its memory. In 1797 they signed a secret protocol that pledged to abolish "everything which might recall the existence of a Polish Kingdom in face of the performed annihilation of this political body...the name or designation of the Kingdom of Poland shall remain suppressed as from the present and forever". The very name of Poland was stricken from the historical record. To accomplish this end the Russians, among other things, systematically looted the Commonwealth, shipping home books, including the 500,000 volumes from the Warsaw Library, the first public reference library in Europe, artwork, and other valuables, much of which remains in Russia today. The Prussians melted down the Polish crown jewels and sold them at base value. Not to be outdone, the Austrians turned royal palaces into barracks for its occupying troops. All three in varying degrees attempted to wipe the collective memory of Polish history from the minds of their new subjects. The solidarity of the partitioning partners was more precarious than it might appear; part of the reason for the abolition of the Polish name was to prevent any one of the coalition from resurrecting Poland for their own advantage. The resolution was, in fact, directed as much against the three ruling courts as it was against Poland.
The disappearance of the Commonwealth did not occur in a vacuum and, despite the distance, affected Western powers in the centuries to come. The elimination of Poland disturbed the balance-of-power in Europe as the partitioners received an increase in power not accompanied by a similar increase to their Western European competitors. The change was particularly provocative in the context of the ongoing French Revolution, which threatened to remake the map in the West if not beyond. Another disturbing consequence was that the absorption of Poland placed the Russian and Prussian Empires, each bent on expansion, in direct contact. They would not make good neighbors.
Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland, I,383.
Need source for quote statement. The statement is strikingly similar to that made by Patrick Henry in 1775 to the Virginia House of Burgesses, "Give me Liberty, or give me Death!"
Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland, I, 389.
It is interesting to note that in all of Poland's long and violent history, unlike Russian Czars and American Presidents, no King was ever assassinated. The closest call occurred in 1481, when Lithuanians in the pay of the Czar plotted to kill Casimir IV. Fortunately the plot was exposed before the conspirators could act.
Wandycz, The Lands of Partitioned Poland, 1794-1918, 10.
Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland, I, 396.
Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland, I, 403.
Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland, I, 404.
It should be noted that at the time the term "dictator" did not have the negative connotations justly deserved by 20th century leaders associated with the term. According to Roman custom, in times of great emergency a civic-minded individual was temporarily appointed dictator. The dictator was granted extraordinary powers but, following the example of Cincinnatus, was expected to voluntarily step down as soon as the crisis passed.